Employers, If You Fire for a Facebook Post, Please, Get a Copy of It First!

The plaintiff is a Michigan lawyer.  She was placed on the assignment list of the County Probate Court and, as a result, received several case assignments.  She made a comment on Facebook about what she believed to be inefficiency at the Clerk’s Office at the Court in a particular case she was handling. She tagged two people in the post, mistakenly identifying them as employees at the Clerk’s Office. how_to_permanently_delete_or_deactivate_facebook_account_thumb

One of the two employees brought the post to the attention of the Court administrator.  The administrator never saw the actual post.  Two days later, the Court administrator notified the plaintiff by letter that she had been removed from the assignment list because of her comment on Facebook.

The plaintiff attempted to get back on the list multiple times but was unsuccessful and filed suit.  The suit alleges several constitutional claims, all but one of which were dismissed by the court.  The claim that survived is a claim for unlawful retaliation in violation of the First Amendment-i.e., a free-speech claim.

The court declined to dismiss the free-speech claim for several reasons.  First, it held that the plaintiff was speaking as a private citizen-not as an employee-when she made the post.  I tend not to agree but, well, we can’t all be right all of the time.

Second, the court held that she was speaking on a matter of public concern.  This finding was based, in large part, on the fact that no one could produce a copy of the actual post and, therefore, the court was left to decide the nature of the speech without ever having seen the speech.  Yikes.

Why, you ask, did no one produce the post?  According to the opinion, because the plaintiff deleted it.  Hmmm.  That doesn’t seem like exactly the right outcome, does it?  Because the plaintiff destroyed evidence, she gets the benefit of the doubt?

Maybe not.  But it does teach an important lesson to employers.  If you are going to discipline or terminate an employee due to something the employee posted on Facebook-get and keep a copy of the actual post if at all possible. Taking someone’s word for what the post says doesn’t mean that the termination is unlawful but it does likely mean that you’re going to have to work a lot harder to prove your case.

Butler v. Edwards-Brown, No. 13-13738, 2014 U.s. Dist. LEXIS 62032 (E.D. Mich. May 5, 2014).

Hurt Feelings Do Not a Lawsuit Make . . . Even on Twitter

To establish a claim of defamation, the plaintiff must establish that: (1) the defendants made a statement concerning the plaintiff to a third party; (2) that the statement could damage the plaintiff’s reputation in the community; (3) that the defendant was at fault in making the statement; and (4) that the statement either cause the plaintiff economic loss or is actionable without proof of economic loss. twitter bird singing (2)_3

There are several possible defenses to a claim of defamation.  Two of the most common are that: (1) the allegedly defamatory statement is true; and (2) that the statement was one of opinion, as opposed to fact.  Thus, if you make a negative statement about someone that is true, there can be no liability for defamation.  Similarly, if you merely comment about your opinion, as opposed to purporting to make a factual statement, there has been no defamation.

Defamation by Twitter is no different.  Comments that are merely expressions of opinion, whether made in person, in the local newspaper’s letter to the editor, or on Twitter, cannot form the basis for a claim of defamation.  A federal court in Massachusetts recently explained this idea in Feld v. Conway.

In Feld, the plaintiff brought a claim for defamation based on the defendant’s tweet that the plaintiff was “f-ing crazy.”  The comment was made in response to a thoroughbred horse that disappeared after it was supposed to have been shipped to a horse farm in New Jersey.  The event was the subject of “great debate” in the thoroughbred race horse community, which included the defendant, Crystal Conway.  The tweet at issue was apparently intended to imply that the plaintiff, Feld, was involved somehow with the horse’s disappearance.

The defendant moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the comment was merely opinion and, therefore, could not constitute the basis of a defamation claim.  The court agreed.  Finding that, when viewed in the context of the online discussion regarding the horse’s disappearance, the comment that the plaintiff was “f-ing crazy” “cannot reasonably be understood to state actual facts about plaintiff’s mental state.”  Instead, it was “obviously intended as criticism-that is, as opinion-not as a statement of fact.”  As a result, the defamation claim was dismissed.

So, what’s the lesson from this case?  Primarily, it’s this: don’t go suing over cheap insults.  Comments like the one at issue in the above suit are not comments to be taken seriously.  Does that mean that they are not annoying, insulting, and/or distracting?  No, of course not.  Online attacks, like “real-life” attacks, are not pleasant.  But that does not mean that there is a basis to run out and file suit.

It is a different world today, when individuals and entities alike must deal with negative online commentary.  But hurt feelings do not a lawsuit make.

Feld v. Conway, No. 13-13122-FDS (D. Mass. Apr. 14, 2014).  [H/T to Jay Yurkiw, of Technology Law Source at Porter Wright].

Is It Time to Reconsider Your Personal Email Policy?

The Heartbleed Internet-security flaw has compromised the security of an unknown number of web servers.  This is just one story in a string of recent headlines involving the vulnerability of the Internet sites.  But consumers aren’t the only ones affected.  The companies whose websites have been attacked are employers, after all.computer help button_3

Although data security has become increasingly impossible to ensure, it has also become increasingly critical to employers’ viability.  So employers are looking for ways to mitigate the exponentially increasing risks associated with the Internet. Continue reading

Father Learns a Costly Lesson about the Importance of Keeping Promises

When considering whether to settle a lawsuit filed by a current or former employee, many of my employer clients have serious doubts about the usefulness of a confidentiality provision. For good reason, employers don’t want the plaintiff to brag about the settlement, thereby encouraging other potential litigants. But, my clients often ask, will the employee really be silenced? Or will the employee just ignore his confidentiality obligation. comic book spy secret_3

My answer has a few parts. First, having a confidentiality provision is better than not having one. Second, if the employer learns of a breach, it will, at least, have some options for holding the employee accountable. A story from last week’s news headlines confirms the validity of both points.

Teenager Dana Snay’s father settled an age-discrimination case brought against his former employer, Gulliver Preparatory School, for $80,000. When the girl learned about the settlement, she did what most teenagers would do-she posted about it on Facebook, broadcasting the news to her 1,200 Facebook friends:

Mama and Papa Snay won the case against Gulliver. . . . Gulliver is now officially paying for my vacation to Europe this summer. SUCK IT.

Snay was just kidding about her European vacation-there was no such vacation in the works. But that’s probably not what bothered Gulliver. When it learned about the post, it refused to tender the settlement payment to Snay’s father, claiming that the post constituted a breach of the confidentiality provision in the settlement agreement.

And a Florida appellate court agrees. The Miami Herald reports that the court found in favor of the employer when Snay’s father sought to compel payment.

So what are the lessons to be learned, dear readers?

First, don’t underestimate the value of a confidentiality provision.

Second, understand your contractual obligations and abide by them strictly. Although many commentators are blaming Snay for her Facebook chattiness, the real fault lies with her father. He promised that he would keep the agreement confidential and he failed to keep his promise. There are consequences to such failures, which is why we spell them out in written contracts.

Chefs and Employment Law: A Valentine’s Day Post

Rumor has it that today is Valentine’s Day.  Being married to a chef-restaurateur, Valentine’s Day doesn’t mean “romantic holiday” to me as much as “very, very busy workday.”  And, for that reason, I’ll dedicate today’s post to the food-service professionals who have a long weekend of work ahead of them.

There are plenty of employment-law topics with a chef or restaurant connection.  Here are a few stories from recent history that come to mind.love heart tattoo art_thumb

Wage-and-Hour Claims

Certainly, restaurants are not the only industry subject to wage-and-hour claims by employees.  But there does seem to have been a recent proliferation of settlements of such claims by businesses owned by famous-name chefs.

There was the $5.25 million settlement forked out by Chef Mario Batali in March 2012, over allegations that servers’ tips had been improperly withheld.  Then there was the January 2014 settlement agreement that Chef Daniel Boulud reached with 88 workers who alleged that their pay had been improperly reduced to account for tips, resulting in payment of overtime at an incorrect rate.  The amount of that settlement is confidential.  And, even more recently, there was the $446,500 settlement agreement reached to resolve the wage claims of 130 servers at two NYC restaurants owned by Chef Wolfgang Puck.

Why are so many wage claims against restaurants?  One reason is the complexity of the laws in this area.  The overtime laws are complicated even in the context of an employee who receives hourly wages only.  But, add to that tip credits, earned tips, and tip pooling, and you’ve got a virtual maze of complex issues.  The laws are not easy to navigate, especially without guidance from experienced legal counsel.

Social-Media Use and/or Misuse

I’d be remiss, of course, if I didn’t give at least one social-media related story, too.  So I will end today’s post with a reference to a story about a chef who sent a bunch of not-so-nice tweets from the restaurant’s official Twitter account after he’d been fired but before (apparently) the restaurant had changed the password on its account.

Chef Grant Achatz, owner of Alinea in Chicago, landed in hot water when he tweeted about a couple who brought their 8-month old to dinner.  I have a definite opinion on this story.  Having been to Alinea, I feel very comfortable saying that it is not a place where an 8-month old needs to be and, if the 8-month old is crying at the top of his lungs, it’s not a place where that baby should be.  The restaurant is very expensive, with meals starting at more than $200 per person.  Reservations are wickedly difficult to get with only 80 seats.

Most important, though, is the nature of the experience.  Diners fight for reservations and pay big bucks for a reason–the meal is something you remember forever.  The food is so far beyond anything else, it’s almost an Alice-In-Wonderland experience.  And to have that be ruined by the guests at the table next to you would be, to me anyway, a crushing disappointment.

So, there.  That’s where I stand on the question.  Chef Achatz’s tweet did not offend me or make me adore his restaurant any less.

Delaware Supreme Court Rules On Admissibility of Facebook Evidence

Employment lawyers know the potential importance of social-media evidence.  We’ve written about numerous cases in which an employee is fired for something he posted on Facebook or other social-media site.  As a general matter, it is not unlawful per se to make an employment decision based on information obtained from a social-networking site.  (Of course, the normal rules apply to social media, too.  Thus, it is unlawful to make an adverse employment decision based on race, religion, gender, etc., regardless of the source of that information.) Continue reading

Demoted for Posting Picture of Confederate Flag on Facebook Page

Public-sector employees have First Amendment rights.  But those rights are not without limits.  Employers, too, have rights-in particular, the right to operate an effective and efficient workplace.  Law-enforcement agencies get even more protection because the law recognizes the potential for harm to the department’s reputation and the public’s trust.

And how do all of these rights play out in the context of social media?  Usually in the employer’s favor.  As yet another court opinion shows, police officers have very little latitude when it comes to posting controversial views on their personal Facebook pages.

The plaintiff in this case, Deputy Chief Rex Duke, worked for the Clayton State University Police Department for eight years with no performance problems.  Shortly after the presidential election in November 2012, the plaintiff posted a picture of a confederate flag to his Facebook page with the comment, “It’s time for the second revolution.”

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His Facebook profile and posts were accessible only to his Facebook friends. His profile did not indicate that he was employed by the Police Department or even that he was a police officer. And he took the post down within an hour after posting it.

But that hour was long enough for one of his “friends” to send a screenshot of the post to the local TV station. A story ran that evening on the local news about the post and the plaintiff’s position as Deputy Chief.

The Police Department received anonymous complaints about Plaintiff, prompting an investigation. Following he investigation, the plaintiff was demoted in rank and duties and his pay was cut. The plaintiff sued the Police Department, alleging First Amendment retaliation.

The court upheld the demotion, finding no unlawful imposition by the employer on the plaintiff’s right to free speech.  The basis for the court’s opinion was the potential disruption and/or actual disruption caused by the plaintiff’s posts.  In most circuits, including the 11th Circuit, potential disruption can be sufficient justification for an employer’s interference with an employee’s right to free speech.  Here, the court explained, there was not only potential for disruption caused by the plaintiff’s post but there was actual disruption, as well, as evidenced by the complaints the Department received.

Are these consequences harsh?  Most definitely.  Remember, the post was not publicly accessible and was up only for an hour.  But that doesn’t mean that the consequences were unlawful.

Duke v. Hamil, No. 1:13-cv-01663-RWS, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13388 (N.D Ga. Feb. 4, 2014).